Monday, July 25, 2016

Cavalcade of Comedy

In 1933 Fox released a big budget film version of Noel Coward's play Cavalcade. You'd think the last thing American audiences would want to see at the height of the Depression would be a worshipful portrait of the British upper classes before WWI, but Cavalcade was a monster hit and even won the Oscar for Best Picture.

Later in the decade, just before the outbreak of WWII, Fox produced another nostalgic look at pre-Depression life, this time concerning the early days of the film industry, and titled it Hollywood Cavalcade.

The film details the silent-era ups and downs of a director based on Mack Sennett -- who himself appears, along with various Sennett veterans as well as Buster Keaton. Keaton is shown inventing the pie fight when he accidentally hits Alice Faye with a custard pie (in fact Keaton was never a pie throwing comedian):   

The highlight of HC is an extended B&W chase sequence directed by Sennett veteran Mal St. Clair, featuring Buster and the Keystone Kops (though that name is never used) which borrows some ideas from Keaton's motorcycle scene in Sherlock Jr. However the use of rear screen blunts its impact.

Unfortunately, after an amusing first half HC devotes the rest of its running time to a Star Is Bornish soap opera, whereupon director Alan Ameche gets too big for his britches and ignores the only woman he could ever love thus descending into alcoholic degradation etc etc etc... Curiously, the very similar The Comic would repeat this pattern thirty years later -- first half fascinating silent comedy detail, second half soap.  

Still, even in the second half there are interesting moments, as when Ameche goes to a theater and sees the audience wowed by this new movie The Jazz Singer. This sequence features Al Jolson and was specially shot for the film. I am willing to bet Comden and Green saw Hollywood Cavalcade before writing Singin' In The Rain, as both films share several plot points.  

Hollywood Cavalcade is fascinating for movie buffs as it presents an early Hollywood perspective on the silent era -- Nostalgia on its way to History. There are dozens of references to various aspects of silent cinema: Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle is seen (from behind) and someone even calls out his first name -- six years after his death, he could finally appear in a major studio feature; in a bathing beauties scene Ameche directs young starlets ("Mabel! Don't look down! Move your head a little to the right!"); there is even a subtle reference to Sam Goldwyn's "Eminent Authors" fiasco.  

But my favorite such moment is when we see the Director reject an aspiring actor (for whom in real life Fox honcho Darryl Zanuck had written scripts in the '20s). He later becomes the #1 star in movies: Rin Tin Tin. 

Hollywood Cavalcade never quite makes classic status, but the first half is an amusing tribute to silent comedy and the entire film has an abundance of interesting detail. I certainly found it more entertaining than the original Cavalcade.


David Wolper was a Hollywood producer
who specialized in documentaries. His preferred method was to use as much PD or cheap-to-acquire footage as conceivably possible (William Friedkin's recent memoir gives an amusing portrait of Wolper's M.O.).

In the early '60s he sold a series to ABC called Hollywood and The Stars, consisting mostly of library and newsreel clips, with wraparounds from host Joseph Cotten. The H&TS episode on movie monsters is still fondly remembered by horror aficionados who saw it as kids, but the one that concerns us is "Funny Men", broadcast on November 29, 1963, exactly one week after the assassination of President Kennedy.

Clearly inspired by the compilation films of archivist Robert Youngson (I'm sure we'll discuss him at a later date) then playing in theaters, there are a couple of interesting things here: for one, this may be the first time Chaplin's City Lights rehearsal footage was ever seen publicly. And if I'm not mistaken the man with Fred Allen is none other than an unrecognizable Clifton Webb. Straight man, indeed.

The Marx Brothers are only mentioned in passing, and if Hal Roach was mentioned at all I missed it. Roach's discoveries Laurel & Hardy are seen only in a brief clip from and English newsreel. I guess Wolper was taking no chances with usage rights.

Cotten's intro to part 2 is worth waiting for.

The episode's writer, Irwin Rosten, is unknown to me -- checking IMDb he appears to have specialized in documentaries, and worked a lot for Wolper. But movie buffs will know the "Funny Men" director - Jack Haley Jr made a career out of Hollywood nostalgia, which reached its zenith a decade later with Haley's That's Entertainment.

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